Saturday, 11 February 2017

Pseudo-Sumerian beer: the first experiment

Last year I made Sumerian beer, using a recipe from 1800 BCE.  It was good stuff, so I decided to try modernizing the recipe.  The aim of the game here isn't to recreate Sumerian beer, but to create a modern style that retains the characteristics of Sumerian beer while being more appealing to 21st century beer drinkers (i.e. me).  Mostly, that means carbonating it.  Last year's Sumerian beer was quite drinkable, but I would have preferred it to be carbonated and I would also have liked just a hint of hops.  The Sumerians didn't have hops, but I like them, especially the aromatic types like Tettnang and Cascade.

Pseudo-Sumerian beer

As you can see, the pseudo-Sumerian beer is a dark amber colour with a moderate head.  The taste is malty with a hint of caramel from the dates and some nice Amarillo top notes.  I chose Amarillo hops because they're not too overpowering and have a delicate citrus flavour that works well with dates, which were an important ingredient in Sumerian beer.  The hop flavour is not especially strong, but it's enough to cut through the sweetness of the malt and provide a bit of complexity.

Like the original Sumerian beer, this recipe uses barley malt, dates, and bappir.  Making bappir does take time and adds an extra step to the brewing process, but without it the beer wouldn't taste the same and you can make it ahead of time.  I described how I make bappir in this post - it's just malted barley, a little bit of spice, and some date honey mixed into a dough and then baked.

This batch came out at around 3% alcohol by volume, because I screwed up.  I hadn't used Black Rock malt before and didn't realise that you're supposed to use two cans for a 23 liter recipe, not just one.  However, there are occasions where you might want a low alcohol beer and this is a good choice.  It tastes much better than most of the light beers you can buy in Australasia.

Pseudo-Sumerian beer (PSB) recipe

500 grams bappir
250 ml date honey, which is dates that have been soaked in hot water and pureed - dried dates are fine and much cheaper than fresh ones
1 can Black Rock Amber liquid malt extract - please note that this should actually be two cans if you want a full strength beer
500 grams The Brew House light dried malt extract*
50 grams Amarillo hops, boiled for 1 hour
1 sachet dried ale yeast - you can get away with using bread yeast

The bappir needs to be mashed, but this is fairly simple.  You just crumble it into a ceramic casserole dish, cover it with boiling water, and leave it with the lid on for an hour.  Using a ceramic casserole dish keeps the heat in and thus helps extract the sugar from the bappir.

Strain the bappir mash into a 10 - 15 liter pot, then add three liters of hot water, both cans of amber malt extract, the date honey, and the dried malt extract.  Make sure the malt extracts are fully dissolved, then boil the wort until the protein break occurs and foam forms on top.  You'll also want to boil your hops while you prepare the wort.  After the wort has boiled you can strain the boiled hops into it, tip it into your fermenting barrel, top it up with cold water to make 23 liters (or 6 gallons if you're American), and pitch your yeast once it reaches the right temperature.

There are two key differences between this pseudo-Sumerian beer and real Sumerian beer.  One difference is the inclusion of hops, and the other is that I fermented my PSB a lot longer than the Sumerians probably did.  As I discussed in a previous post about Sumerian beer, I don't think the Sumerians used secondary fermentation.  They did not know how fermentation works, and may not even have understood the concept of secondary fermentation.  Since their brewing conditions would not have been very sanitary by 21st century standards, they may also have found it was unwise to leave their beer fermenting any longer than a couple of days.

Secondary fermentation starts to occur about three days into the fermentation process.  By then the yeast has consumed most of the sugar in the wort and has produced almost all the alcohol it's going to produce.  It then starts to metabolise more complex carbohydrates, which improves the taste of the beer and helps get rid of any off flavours.  Secondary fermentation is therefore an important part of the modern beer making process.  I left my pseudo-Sumerian beer to ferment for two weeks to ensure it got a secondary fermentation, then bottle conditioned it for a further two weeks.

Feel free to substitute other brands of malt extract.  You just need an amber malt and a little light malt to supplement it. 


  1. This sounds like an interesting experiment, though it's not one I could say much about even if I could taste your beer; most beer tastes the same to me.

    1. Many beers do taste the same. I can't tell the difference between most commercially produced lagers, or India pale ales.